We have a strange relationship with the word Bravery in the world these days. We love the notion of bravery, but the world we have and are still creating does little to promote bravery, actual bravery, where you do something even though you are afraid of doing it. We have and are continuing to build a world wherein we substitute certainty, and call it bravery.
I love it when large institutional investors complain when someone defaults on a loan, or a bond that they offered. We hear about ethical concerns and the fairness of a system that might deprive them of their expected returns, but what they are really saying is that their investments are supposed to be certainties where they invest money and reap a predetermined return on that money. Indeed that is what is supposed to happen, in all cases and at all times.
But sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes Stockton, California defaults and declares bankruptcy and that is what happens instead. That’s when the disconnect comes into play, when we realize that while investments are meant to be brave acts, risking an amount of money in order to secure the possibility of profitable returns, some folks have begun thinking of them as certainties, money to which they are entitled, simply by the act of lending it out in the first place, investing it.
And the thing it, I do not begrudge them their day in court, their opinion that they ought to be repaid for their investment. I understand their motives and they are not the problem. The problem is in a society where we confuse certainty and bravery, where we tell people who think that they are not assuming a risk when they invest that what they are doing is still brave, and worthy of such returns.
It’s how Bernie Madoff made his money. He told people that the crazy returns were a sure thing and people bought into it because some people really did make great returns. Investing stopped being a risky thing and became a sure thing right up until the day when it wasn’t anymore and then the whole thing collapsed.
But the reason that the whole notion of investing evolved was that risk too the place of work, you invested against the chance of default in order to earn the returns you were asking for and then the chance of default was baked into the cake so to speak, the higher the chance of default, the higher the return.
It seems to me that nowadays if you have the power to enforce your will in the world, i.e. you have a lot of money, then the way to make sure that you stay there is to turn risks into certainties and eliminate the costliness of bravery that might entice you to do something for the first time, to dare something, to take an actual risk.
We become risk-averse, beating down the notion of losing a bet until we end up in a housing crisis because nobody ever thought that they could lose, it was a sure thing. I was told many times eight years ago that it was a sure thing, buy a house, sure thing. We have beaten down the idea that the whole enterprise is a risk, buying something that is supposed to endure beyond your own lifetime, marrying, having children.
In so doing, we have set ourselves up for a terrible fall, a terrible comeuppance. Some time, sooner or later, reality reasserts itself and Stockton defaults, or that wonderful man you married is leaving his socks on the living room floor and leaving the toilet seat up; or that child is not the glowing symbol of your success that you wanted him to be, he is developing a mind of his own and that is just not satisfactory.
Then suddenly we are confronted with the fact that we will have to be brave and do the thing that is hard. We will have to take the loss, or work hard to rebuild what has already been lost in order to make it better, any of those things are much harder than sitting back and reaping rewards, we all know how nice that is.
Do we remember how to be brave?
I heard a commentator one time speak about the images that we show to our children and the typical place your mind goes at times like that is the images that we show to our girls, but his point was the images that we show to our boys. His comment was that we have eliminated the common-man hero from our landscape, taken away the Lone Ranger whose only qualification was the mask and his skill.
In their place we have arranged for a series of “chosen one” stories where the hero is a hero because of some mystical gift, or some prophecy, or because of some other dint of birth rather than grit or determination or, well, goodness. Doesn’t a hero have to be good?
Not in video games. There they have perfected the anti-hero, the person who is just good enough to get by and makes the rest of his way with a gun or by stealing a car.
You might say that bravery is now the first qualification of a hero, but if you are the chosen one, or the descendant of a god, or in some other way marked for success, how brave do you have to be?
And that is what bravery has become: surety, assuredness of success, otherwise we won’t take the risk. You cannot even get a kid to get up and watch a shuttle launch anymore. Science-fiction movies have stripped all of the thrill out of it, we do not expect anything to go wrong, the aliens are not going to attack, and everything will come out fine.
But can you imagine the actual bravery it takes to strap yourself to about eight million pounds of thrust atop a rocket headed for an environment that is actively trying to kill you every second of every day you are there?
Or the actual bravery, the nobility of running into a firefight on a battlefield and working to rescue a fallen soldier while the bullets and shrapnel are whizzing all around you?
And no reset button in sight; if you lose your life, then it is lost, forever, no cute video game sound to mark your passage. A risk was taken and you lost.
A little different from losing a bet on Stockton, CA, but the symptom is the same. We have a hard time understanding actual courage because the culture keeps telling us that certainty is what you have to have before you even try and risk something, by which time you are risking nothing at all.
This is Doubting Thomas Sunday which I have always thought of as unfair. It is unfair to name this day and make it a pejorative to say that Thomas doubted. Nobody names Good Friday “Thrice denying Peter” Friday, but there it is. We have made doubt out to be the failing of Thomas, the thing that is his flaw amongst the disciples, who all believe, but who all also saw the Lord the first time, so they get no special credit for believing from me.
But Thomas is among them all the most to be celebrated this morning. We should name this day Honest Thomas Sunday because this morning; Thomas is brave; Thomas takes a risk; Thomas tells the truth and admits that he is having a few problems with the whole “He is risen” thing and would like to be convinced.
Think that was a popular position among the disciples? Think any of them were quite as generous with Thomas as I am being this morning? “Dude, when we say we saw the Messiah, then we totally saw the Messiah!”
I’m sure that there was a part of Thomas that wanted to go along, to just agree with the crowd. Why take the risk, it’s only a little white lie and it will make everyone so happy if we all just join up our voices and hail the return of Jesus. That way he could still lay claim to the mantle of the disciple without any of the risk or uncertainty that would come from actually living out those values, actually belonging to the truth. Remember the testimony in front of Pilate on Good Friday? “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus says.
That is the calling that Thomas answers this morning, the call to the truth, to live as he was taught by his rabbi, his Lord, his savior, no matter the risk.
He does not know. He will not believe and that is the truth and for centuries we have cast aspersions on people who have the bravery to admit that they do not know and lauded those who say they know it all.
Just so the disciples in this morning’s reading from Acts are ordered by the High Priests not to preach or teach in Jesus name but they are doing it anyway, their calling is to the truth to the honest, risky venture of speaking out loud of this man Jesus, who died for the sins of many so that many might live without fear. They are obeying their calling, listening to their hearts, living their values, their faith, their love for the world by speaking in His name, by speaking His name.
The calling of the culture, the world, their very flesh cries out for safety. It cries out not to rock the boat, the truth is one thing, but, well, these guys are in charge, and it’d be dangerous.
But bravery is not doing the thing when there is no danger, when you are sure. Bravery is doing the thing when you are afraid, despite being afraid, when there is no guarantee, when you have to make yourself vulnerable.
You have to risk being right, and you have to risk losing, even though you are right.
Because you cling to the truth, you belong to the truth of Jesus and Him crucified and risen but if you do not speak, if you do not risk, if you do not open yourself and show that certainty is not required to speak, that bravery is alive and well in the Christian community, that we will risk it all for the sake of Him who gave it all for us; then the power of that salvation, the majesty and glory of the coming of the Lord your God into the world stops with you, with your ears which receive the word and your heart upon which it is written and when it goes no farther, then it has stopped.
Unless we can summon up again that hero from years gone by. The real person, flesh and blood who steps up when things are dicey and does what is right anyway. The Green Hornet or the Lone Ranger armed with little other than their courage and their knowledge of what is right. What has been done to us that those images seem hokey, even to me? How have we blurred what it means to be a hero, to be brave in our culture?
Here’s to Thomas, and to the disciples in this morning’s Acts reading who stepped out, no matter what conventional wisdom told them and lived their truth, lived their values whatever the risks. They spoke out about their faith and their Lord and the Kingdom grew and prospered. It wasn’t about safety; it was about people, other people and their salvation when they see the transformational power of the Gospel playing out in someone’s life. It wasn’t about going along with the flow, about finding a place of comfort and staying there instead of living a risky life, living in the truth, belonging to the truth.
It is uncomfortable to take risks, that’s why they call them risks. If it was not uncomfortable they’d call them vacations. But it is at that edge of our lives that we can truly come to know the people around us, can truly come together and speak the truth, speak the Gospel and bring the salvation of Christ into the lives of those around us.
Sounds worth a little risk, eh? That’s how you determine that. Risk versus reward.
The ones who take the risk are the ones who will reach out, find the lost, and bring them home. Like Thomas, they will be brave enough to speak the truth and like Thomas, there is no distance Jesus will not cross to bring His salvation. So this is Honest Thomas Sunday and we celebrate Thomas, hero of the faith, not because he was sure, but because he lived out his discipleship and told the truth.